Around here, we’re great fans of Janice Y.K. Lee’s debut, The Piano Teacher, a 2009 novel about a Western woman who gets involved with a Chinese family in WWII-era Hong Kong. So we were excited for Lee’s next book, The Expatriates, which publishes this month. It’s a very different book – contemporary, for one thing – but has Lee’s signature graceful style and interesting, multifaceted characters. It, like its predecessor, is also set in Hong Kong – but today’s Hong Kong, which is different from The Piano Teacher’s and different from the Hong Kong in which Lee grew up. I talked to Lee about her writing and her life and about her fondest wish: That she and her new friend Kevin Kwan, the author of the satire, Crazy Rich Asians, should give a talk together about their books. “But his Crazy Rich Asians would eat my ex-pats alive!” she says.
Amazon Book Review: Many writers who get known for writing historical fiction continue to write historical fiction. Did you make a conscious decision to write a contemporary novel this time?
Janice Y.K. Lee: I would have to say that the anomaly was actually The Piano Teacher. I never would have thought my first novel would be historical fiction. I had always read literature that was quite contemporary, and that was my first love. But when I was in graduate school I started working on this piece about this piano teacher, and it had a kind of historical tone, and I found it sort of fun to write in that vein. It was very happenstance: I had no experience obviously writing historical fiction and I didn’t read a lot of historical fiction. But I read a lot of books during that time and I got a real sense of the era and The Piano Teacher is the book that emerged.
So when I started thinking about my second novel, I had no idea what was going to come. My books always start – my two books, all my books [laughs] – with an image or character. And for this, it was an image of a woman who was just lying in bed. She didn’t want to get up and it was the daytime, and there had been a dinner party. That’s all I knew. I didn’t know where it was. I didn’t know what it was and I just started writing from that. I was a little reluctant to write another novel set in Hong Kong, because I didn’t want to be pigeonholed ... but it just ended up organically that that’s where the story went and I couldn’t really fight it.
ABR: You were born in Hong Kong and after years in the States, you went back for five years; you’ve just returned to live here again. The characters in the book are mostly all expats, like you were. Is the book autobiographical?
JYKL: The trappings, the exterior world are pretty true to life. But nothing like what happens to the characters in the book happened to anyone I know; the characters aren’t based on anyone I know. So the book is not super autobiographical. It’s funny, though - when people [in Hong Kong] found out I was leaving and that I had written a book called The Expatriates, they thought, Oh, So you don’t want to be here [when it comes out.] But - and I hope you’ll agree - I think it’s a very empathetic/sympathetic book about women – it’s such a female world there. I hate to generalize but it’s statistically correct: [expat Hong Kong] is a community of women during the weekdays. Men work ridiculous hours and they travel so they’re not around. So you become very very good friends with the other women who are leading the same lives as you. So I think while no one is going to recognize themselves or the story, they’re going to recognize the world.
ABR: One of the clear themes in the book is about otherness, not fitting in, being transient. Did you do that intentionally?
JYKL: I can try as hard as I can to be intentional but I really feel that the way I write, the story leads me in a way that I don’t have that much say over. I think ideas infuse themselves into the text on a very unconscious level.
I was an expat in Hong Kong but I’m also a local because I was born and raised there, but I’m also not a local because I’m Korean. So my entire life I’ve sort of been between worlds. I’m not an American but I am. I am a Hong Kong local but I’m not. I’m Korean and I’m not.
I think this is happening to more and more people in the world: they’re not checking any boxes. I was Korean but brought up in Hong Kong, and I look Asian so people thought I was Chinese. And then I went to the American school and then the States where I was this Korean girl from Hong Kong. You’re never able to be classified in a way that’s neat. But I think that serves a writer so well to always be an anthropologist, an observer. I think that for most thoughtful people who are leading a life where they’re being thoughtful, it’s probably helpful to be an outsider. You’re always observing groups and why they form, and why people do the things they do. Other people may be very comfortable but you’re always observing because they’re new to you. You’re learning about all kinds of people because you’re not comfortable yourself. I guess it has been a conscious way for me to live my life because when people ask “Where are you from?” it’s such a complicated question. And I think it’s increasingly a complicated question for many people.